Nowadays, nearly all high school softball teams that advance deep into state tournaments are comprised primarily of travel ball players.
The Lakewood Ranch High School squad is no different. All 20 girls play on travel teams.
There is, however, no question about their allegiance during the prep season. Despite being spread out among four different offseason programs — two levels of the Tampa Mustangs, Sarasota Heat and Florida Select — at this point being high school teammates take precedence.
“Right now, they’re all Lakewood Ranch Mustangs,” said Lakewood Ranch coach T.J. Goelz, who also coaches the Tampa Mustangs in the offseason. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job breaking down barriers. They know the difference between high school and travel ball. We’re focused on the Lakewood Ranch Mustangs winning the state title.”
Lakewood Ranch (24-4) is two wins from staking that claim. The Mustangs, whose two state semifinal appearances (2012 and 2013) ended in losses, take on Orange Park Oakleaf at 4:05 p.m. Tuesday in a Class 8A state semifinal at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
The championship game is slated for Wednesday at 5:35 p.m. against the Hagerty-Cooper City winner.
By next weekend, the girls will split up and begin practicing with their travel teams with a summer full of tournaments just around the corner.
“They all know that when we break they’re going to play on their (travel) teams,” said Goelz, noting that he has a Tampa Mustangs camp scheduled for the upcoming weekend and a tournament the following weekend.
That travel ball experience, Goelz said, can be measured in more than just talent alone. By the time many girls from travel programs don their high school uniforms, they will have played numerous games that often have included tournament championships.
“You can see them embracing the moment and wanting to succeed,” said Goelz, who coached the Tampa Mustangs 16U premier team to a national championship in 2015.
Playing travel ball also factors into the players’ future, especially since college scouts mostly skip high school games in favor of watching the top club teams play in summer or fall tourneys.
Goelz noted that he has only seen an occasional college coach or scout at a high school tourney, but often sees them during travel ball series.
“It’s definitely changed from when I played and when my wife played,” Goelz said, alluding to when he and his wife Liz, a Lakewood Ranch assistant coach, played baseball and softball, respectively, at the University of North Florida. “Now, the predominant path to getting a college scholarship is playing travel ball. That’s where the kids are getting exposure. This is the way of the world now.”
Thanks primarily to their travel ball experience, Lakewood Ranch has nine players committed to college programs and they’re not all seniors. Two, seniors Maddie LoCastro and Kailey Christian, plan to remain teammates at State College of Florida.
The others who have made commitments to schools include:
- Sophomore Avery Goelz, University of Florida;
- senior Morgan Cummins, LSU;
- Sophomore Payton Kinney, UConn;
- Sophomore Brooklyn Lucero, N.C. State;
- Sophomore Taylor Woodring, East Carolina;
- Junior Maddie Koczersut, South Florida;
- Senior Olivia Danko, Florida Gulf Coast.
Whether they are teammates at the high school level or opponents in travel ball, there no doubt is a bond among the Lakewood Ranch players.
“They root for each other,” Goelz said. “They really enjoy each other.”